A Quintessential Introduction to French Art Deco Furniture

French furniture makers embraced this style, and in the years between the World Wars, produced some of the most exciting and innovative Art Deco furniture the world had seen.

Jun 23, 2021By Lisa de Luca
french art deco furniture chair chest armchair
Chair by Clément Rousseau, 1921; with Chariot Chest by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, 1922; and with Reading armchair by Pierre Legrain, 1925-1928

 

The Art Deco period spanned roughly from 1910 to 1935, hitting its peak between the two World Wars. Art Deco was a truly global movement: its influences can be seen in virtually every artistic expression, including furniture, architecture, the visual arts, jewelry, fashion, automobiles, trains, ocean liners, and everyday objects like ashtrays.  More than any other country, France embodied this spirit, especially in its iconic French Art Deco furniture.

 

The History Of Art Deco Furniture

eugene printz jean dunand cabinet
Cabinet by Eugène Printz and Jean Dunand, palmwood, dinanderie, oxidized brass, sycamore, 1937, via Christie’s

 

In 1901, a group of French artists established a collective called the Societé des artistes décorateurs (Society of Decorative Artists). At this time, there was a keen interest from collectors and the elite urban classes for French artworks, specifically in interiors, objets d’art, and furniture. The Society developed new designs and styles, supported by elevated standards for craftsmanship. It also sponsored annual exhibitions in which its members could display their latest work, and in those salons, the Art Deco style formed.

 

In 1912, in order to support the emergence of this novel style and promote French craftsmanship on the world stage, the French government decided to host an international exhibition of the decorative arts. Initially planned for 1915, it was postponed due to the First World War. In 1925, the exhibition, the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, finally took place in Paris.  The exhibition was highly anticipated and drew approximately 16 million visitors. The Style Moderne presented at the Exposition later became known as “Art Deco,” derived from the exhibition’s title.

 

The works on display spanned from everyday objects to highly designed architecture and positioned the French as the supreme purveyors of luxury.

 

andre groult gondola bergere armchair legrain reading armchair
Gondola bergère armchair by Andrè Groult, white shagreen on beech, gray velvet embossed with a floral decoration, c. 1925, via Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris; with Reading armchair by Pierre Legrain, veneer of thorny and satin mahogany, silver-plated metal, braided leather, 1925-1928, via Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris

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The Expo made clear just how significantly Art Deco had impacted the art world. The event showcased many works but specifically furniture that have come to exemplify the Art Deco style. Both the public and critics alike embraced this new style. Pieces recognized for their importance were bought by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. The event cemented the Art Deco legacy around the world.

 

ruhlmann etat cabinet
État Cabinet by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Macassar ebony, amaranth, ivory, oak, lumber-core plywood, poplar, chestnut, mahogany, silvered brass, designed 1922, manufactured 1925-6, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

At its inception, Art Deco was orientated towards the luxury market and paid little notice to costs and retail prices. Pieces were one of a kind; French furniture designers considered themselves the modern iteration of classic furniture makers. Furthermore, their artistic approach was anchored by characteristic French refinement expressed by graceful forms and traditional methods like veneering and marquetry. French furniture designers’ contemporary touch is based on the unmistakable functionality of the pieces created. They then apply artistic touches and ornament, some not traditionally French, that complement the pieces’ functionality.

 

french art deco furniture coard display cabinet
Display cabinet by Marcel Coard, carcase of metal and oak, veneer of Macassar ebony and mother-of-pearl, gold-lacquered interior and shelves, ivory sabots and shelf brackets, glass, 1914-1915, via Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris

 

The Stylistic Attributes Of French Art Deco Furniture 

louis sue paul huillard armchair
Armchair by Louis Süe and Paul Huillard, Yellow, green and red lacquered beech, green faux leather armrests and seat, 1912, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris

 

A desire for functionalism went hand in hand with understatement, refinement, and elegance. The French Art Deco furniture designer was concerned with graceful proportions and restrained, harmonious ornament while reinstating the ideals of fine craftsmanship. He desired sleekness. He revered the maxim “form follows function.”

 

Designs manifested through the inspiration of varied sources – inspiration came from the classical world and the French ancien régime in a sympathetic nod towards aspirational grandeur. Designs also took from concepts in contemporary art such as Cubism and Fauvism, which embraced expression through pattern and shape. Additionally, representations of machine-age innovations as well as designs from Ancient Egypt as inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, Mesoamerican and Native American patterns, and African textiles all influenced Art Deco furniture design.  A single piece of French Art Deco furniture could embrace any one or all of these influences simultaneously.

 

French Art Deco ornamentation complemented the piece’s function and purpose, as there was nothing extraneous or gratuitous about it. Classic ornamentation included inlay, marquetry, lacquer, painting, and decorative panels. Art Deco designers typically downplayed carved sculptural components. Textiles, woods, tooled or repoussé leathers, metals, and ivory were set in geometric and nonrepresentational shapes. A favored motif was the zigzag lightning design, which became an emblem of the 1930s.

 

Art Deco was indeed an international style, adopting designs, materials, and forms that blended a predominant French sensibility and style with influences from captivating and romantic faraway places.

 

Embracing Atypical Materials

french art deco furniture sorel tea table
Tea table by Louis Sorel, varnished cherry wood, 1910, via Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris

 

French Art Deco furniture designers utilized atypical materials, further exemplifying the style’s commitment to luxury and modernity.

 

Tropical woods were used, and dark woods were preferred. Ebony was the wood of choice – although costly, designers used it to make entire sections of furniture, such as legs, drawers, and the carcase. Its heavy use led to a shortage, and thereafter ebony veneers were applied.

 

Other exotic veneers included Macassar ebony, indigenous to Indonesia, as well as palmwood, Brazilian jacaranda, and zebrawood. Apart from these, more unusual woods were utilized, such as amaranth, amboyna, mahogany, violet wood, and sycamore. They were often juxtaposed with burled wood to set off their color.

 

french art deco furniture iribe commode
Commode by Paul Iribane Garay, known as Iribe, carcase of mahogany and tulipwood, slate top, green-dyed shagreen covering, ebony knobs, carved ebony base and garlands, 1912, via Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris

 

Ivory was the most-used furniture mount and decorative accoutrement. It accented shapes and was used as drawer pulls and sabots. Prior to World War I, Asian lacquer work experienced a revival in France which sustained itself through the 1920s. The process required a lot of work; the methodology of the historic, age-old lacquer application used by these artisans required 22-stages. Marble replaced wood for tabletops, where it was often used in tandem with cast iron. Tortoiseshell was also used as an inlay as a decorative accent.

 

french art deco furniture clement mere cabinet
Cabinet by Clément Mère, Macassar ebony, lemon wood, leather, ivory, semiprecious stone, boxwood, lacquer, inlay, 1913, via Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris

 

Shagreen (the skin of a small spotted dogfish), snakeskin, galuchat (treated and dyed sharkskin), and ponyskin (cow skin) were often laid on top of a dressing table or desktop and to upholster chairs and seats. Additionally, designers sometimes used fur on chairs and divans. Straw marquetry was rarely used but still identified as an Art Deco material – the straws are soaked, split, and ironed, then arranged in a geometric pattern.  Textiles, such as luxurious silks, were used as well.

 

french art deco furniture groult chest drawers rousseau chair
‘Anthropomorphe’ chest of drawers by André Groult, mahogany sheathed in sharkskin, ivory, silver, 1925, via Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris; with Chair by Clément Rousseau, rosewood, green-dyed shagreen, ivory, light blue-gray silk upholstery, 1921, via Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris

 

As the French Art Deco style matured, metals such as steel, copper, and wrought/cast iron were increasingly utilized. Many 1920s and 1930s furniture designers acknowledge Michael Thonet’s 19th-century bentwood prototypes as inspiration in metal’s use. The natural evolution of the Art Deco trend, in addition to the global economic crisis in the 20s and 30s, demanded the use of less valuable materials. In this case, metal fit the bill. It was relatively inexpensive and could easily be utilized in a mass-produced setting. Mass production allowed for a higher level of accessibility to luxurious Art Deco furniture for the middle class.

 

The French Art Deco Designers

 

Furniture designers were grouped into three categories:

 

1. Traditionalists, who were influenced by France’s 18th and 19th-century cabinetmakers. Designers include Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann, Paul Follot, André Groult, Jules Leleu, Louis Sϋe and André Mare, Maurice DuFrêne, and Charlotte Chauchet-Guilleré.

 

ruhlmann lotus dressing table
Lotus dressing table by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, purpleheart, amaranth, and Andaman padauk woods; ebony and ivory marquetry.1919-1923, via Victoria & Albert Museum, London

 

2. Modernists, who rebelled against the neoclassical designs. Metal was a prevalent material used by the designers, including Jacques Adnet, André-Léon Arbus, Robert Block, Rene Prou, Louis Sognot, Michel Dufet, Rene Herbst, and Paul Dupré-Lafon.

french art deco furniture herbst chair
Chair by Rene Herbst, nickel-plated metal, stretchers in rubber, and cotton, 1929, via Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris

 

3. Individualists, designers who defied classification due to their unique forms but still retained the archetypal Art Deco characteristics in their work. This group includes Pierre Legrain and Eugéne Printz.

french art deco furniture legrain cabinet
Cabinet by Pierre Legrain, 1919, rosewood, shagreen, jade, horn, sycamore interior, via Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris

 

The 6 Most Popular Popular Types Of Art Deco Pieces

 

1. Art Deco tables were crisply geometric in profile and light in appearance. Legs were vertical or splayed and occasionally carved. Friezes were wide and decorated. Many had marble tops. Console tables sometimes had richly worked cast iron legs and friezes. Low tables were in vogue. Dining tables were made with a single massive central pillar instead of legs.

eileen gray pedestal table
Pedestal table by Eileen Gray, painted wood, tubular metal, 1925-1929, via Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris

 

2. Art deco desks tended to be large without stretchers. Tops were frequently covered with a type of leather. Friezes were veneered. Lock plates and handles were copper, silver, or bronze.

 

michel roux spitz managers office
Manager’s office by Michel Roux-Spitz, Desk: Duco lacquered wood, morocco leather, varnished brass, white canvas, 1930, via Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris

 

3. Art deco armoires (wardrobes) were richly decorated and often based on Louis XVI or Restoration models. They featured large pediments enriched with marquetry, gilt bronze, or silver. The door panels were often dressed in leather or decorated in wood or ivory marquetry. The upper half of the interior would be occupied by shelves and drawers, the lower part with large drawers, and the inner surfaces of the doors fitted with mirrors.

 

french art deco furniture wardrobes
Pair of wardrobes, goatskin parchment, oak, brass, French, c.1930, via Sotheby’s

 

4. Art Deco psyché mirrors often doubled as a dresser and commonly displayed a tall oval mirror framed in the same wood as the rest of the piece. Pieces regularly featured two low, small chests of drawers that supported a central shelf.  Legs were short, straight, and tapered. Ornamentation was discreet.

art deco french wrought iron cheval mirror
Wrought-iron cheval (psyché) mirror, c. 1930, via Christie’s

 

5. Art Deco beds generally had end boards of unequal height, which were rounded or scrolled outward. Moldings weren’t used. Many beds were actually constructed in situ and built into the home.

 

french art deco armand albert rateau bed ruhlmann lit soleil
Jeanne Lanvin’s bedroom by Armand Albert Rateau, painted wood and silk, 1925, via Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris; with “Lit Soleil” bed by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Macassar ebony, designed 1923, executed 1930, via Sotheby’s

 

6. The cocktail cabinet is a piece of furniture first created in the Art Deco period, constructed to hold premium liquors, ingredients, glasswares, and mixing tools. In the early part of the 20th century, many of the beloved cocktails we drink today were invented in Paris. These included the Sidecar, Mimosa, French 75, and the Rose. High-end establishments in Paris such as the Ritz, Harry’s New York Bar, and the Chatham drew in rich and cultured crowds. The cocktail cabinet emphasized the refinement of the epoque as it enabled the cultured person to provide guests with the luxurious experience of dining out in their own home.

 

cocktail cabinets art deco
Demi-lune cocktail cabinet, c. 1930, via Christie’s; with Cocktail cabinet, leather-covered wood and lacquered interior, c. 1930, via Christie’s

 

French Art Deco Furniture: A Symbol Of Modernity

ruhlmann chariot chest
Chariot Chest by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, ebony of Macassar, amaranth, inlay of ivory, 1922, via Musée des Années Trente, Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris

 

Art Deco is considered to be the last great style and the first of the modern art movements. The Art Deco movement permeated every creative discipline and expression; it was quickly embraced by artists and designers from all over the globe.

 

The stock market crash in 1929 and the ensuing world economic crisis resulted in Art Deco becoming seemingly obsolete and gratuitous. The eradication of wealth brought on by the Great Depression erased much of the elite’s ability to buy such expensive pieces of furniture.

 

Because of this, Art Deco furniture began to be mass-produced. Critics challenged that mass production and quality were not mutually exclusive and began to refer to pieces of this period as “vulgar” Deco.

 

Regardless, the enormous commercial success of Art Deco furniture ensured that designers and manufacturers throughout Europe would continue to promote the style well into the 1930s. Controlled, rounded lines characterize early Art Deco, but the look grew slimmer, sleeker, and less decorated over time. Furniture design became soberer, and materials of lesser quality were used.

 

Later, Art Deco came to be known as “Moderne,” and it was this look, along with the International Style that took root in Germany’s Bauhaus School, which evolved into what we now call Modern design.



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By Lisa de LucaLisa is an artist and writer with degrees in Fine Art (BFA) and Art Restoration from FIT in New York. Her professional experience includes years as a gilder and restorer with clients including Sotheby's, Christie's, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and as an art broker working for a number of gallerists and antique dealers. Lisa's areas of interest are the history and art of the late Roman Republic and Roman Empire, Italy between 1450-1650, and Tudor England.